Sunday, 3 June 2012

Earliest food memories

I enjoy interviews with people that focus on food, like this one which got me thinking about my earliest food memories.  I don't have a single memory that I can pick out as my first, just a few different associations.  All centred around a general feeling of strangeness.  Growing up as a vegetarian in an Indian vegetarian family in the '80s, in non-Indian areas, was... interesting.

I remember the cashier at the checkout of a supermarket looking at the aubergines they were buying in some confusion and my parents having to explain to her what they were.  I remember being laughed at for putting salt on salad (what my parents did), I remember struggling to explain in English what we ate at home.  Being bilingual really brings home to you that different languages just can't directly translate into one another because they reflect different views of the world.  The same word, in Gujarati (shak), refers to uncooked vegetables and also curry (because what else would you do with vegetables?!).  On the other hand, Gujarati does have separate words for hot (as in temperature hot) and hot (as in spicy).  It also has separate words for cooked and uncooked rice.

I remember so many fundamental differences between the things that my family ate and how they ate them and my friends' families.One of the most exciting bits of the year food-wise, in my family, is mango season.  My parents got excited by mangoes and pineapples and melons and papayas.   My family would put a load of different dishes in the middle of the table and people could take what they liked.  For my family, vegetables weren't something to have "on the side", they were just food, part of food, normal for adults and children.  I was a teenager before I realised that anyone thought that children didn't like vegetables.  The vast majority of Gujarati food is done on the hob (I can literally only think of one Gujarati dish that happens in the oven - ondwo) rather than in the oven and I always found it weird that my friends' families would use their ovens so heavily (my parents use theirs for storage - seriously!)  I also remember being a bit bemused by the concept of recipes - for my family, the unit of measurement is "a handful" and the idea of doing spicing by anything other than eye would just get you laughed at.

I remember a lot of curiosity from people at school and elsewhere about what we ate and how we ate it and I remember finding it so hard to explain things.  Actually, there are some things that I still find hard to explain.  Like with shak, I remember trying to describe it to someone at school and having them just totally confused by the cooking technique:

- "So you fry it all?" 
- "No, you just.. cook it"
- "But there's oil in there, so that's frying"
- "But there's also water"
- "So you're boiling it, I see"
- "But no, because there's not THAT much water and also there's oil and tomatoes and other stuff"
- "So... you're saying you're sauteeing it?"
- "I don't know what that means"

*headdesk*  I think the fundamental issue is that you can't describe one cuisine with the words of another very succinctly.

These days, I cook food from a variety of different cuisines, but I still have a general love for cooking on the hob, a slight mistrust of ovens, a love for lots of clashing flavours, I always spice by eye rather than measure, and - of course - I never let mango season go past without buying a box or four.
Mmmm, mangoes

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